Written on August 6, 2003
Wilderness designations in the 21st century are taking on a new guise that appears to be an attempt at tempering progressive idealism with conservative realism.
One recent model included congressional wilderness designation of 450,000 acres in 17 road-free islands surrounding Las Vegas, Nev., in 2002. The legislation simultaneously opened 183,000 acres of public land for private and municipal development.
Another example entailed appointment in 2000 of Oregon's 170,000-acre Steens Mountain Wilderness, where ranch owners were paid for properties within the designated area and then given public land elsewhere on which to rebuild.
Rep. Mike Simpson's chief of staff, Lindsay Slater, said a Boulder-White Cloud wilderness bill would be modeled, in part, on those efforts at compromise.
And Slater knows the drill. As legislative director for Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., he was the point man on the Steens Mountain package.
However, it's the Nevada legislation that appears to have captured Slater's imagination.
"We're looking at what happened in Nevada last year, the Clark County bill. They gave a fair amount of land to the state to sell," Slater said.
The Clark County Conservation of Public Land and Natural Resources Act of 2002, which designated small wilderness areas in the Mojave Desert around Las Vegas, also freed up federal land for private development and a new airport 30 miles south of the city.
Wilderness advocates had originally asked for 4.1 million acres, but pared down their request by 10 times to make it more palatable for wilderness opponents.
As a concession to the hunting community, the deal also included a condition allowing the Nevada Division of Wildlife to use trucks and helicopters in the wilderness to survey and capture wildlife and to maintain artificial watering holes.
The Steens Mountain Wilderness was a different animal entirely, but might be applicable to the Boulder and White Clouds discussion.
The Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act of 2000, in addition to designating 170,000 acres of wilderness, authorized $5 million to purchase ranch in-holdings, as well as the trade of 104,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management property for the displaced ranchers.
The Nature Conservancy-Idaho is working with Simpson's office to potentially move existing livestock operations near the White Cloud Mountains "to a more secure base," said Geoff Pampush, TNC-Idaho director.
"In particular, we're in conversations with landowners in the East Fork, but it's actually much broader than that," Pampush said. "What we're looking to do is potentially identify new operations for some of the existing ranchers in the upper Salmon basin. In order to make that work, we may have to buy the ranches of the impacted ranchers and then identify a ranch for them to acquire and help them acquire it."
The motivation for designation of a Steens Mountain Wilderness was different from current efforts in the Boulder and White Cloud Mountains, Slater said. Efforts there stemmed from a defensive posture assumed when former President Bill Clinton's interior secretary announced plans to designate the area as a 3 million-acre national monument.
"We decided there could be a better alternative," Slater said.
In return for supporting wilderness protection, ranchers were also permitted to graze cattle in parts of the wilderness, and they are allowed to drive into the area to check fences and stock tanks.
Of his experience with the Steens Mountain bill, Slater said he learned, above all else, to be meticulous.
"One of the best things I learned is that we have to button down every issue," he said. "We have to cross every t and dot every i, and make sure we leave very little ambiguity for others to interpret, either in lawsuits or by agency officials."